OCs 97 Best American Restaurants
Photo by james BunoanAmerica! Love it, hate it—I prefer to eat it. For the past couple of months, I've tried the best the Republic offers within the confines of this county. I've dined with the Lords of the Universe at Aqua, slummed it with the hoi polloi at numerous burger and hot dog stands, and enjoyed more broasted-chicken joints than is cardiovascularly advisable. And then there was Norm's . . .
1. Snicker all you want, but hear my story first: Norm's is my America. Norm's is where I first learned the joys of steak, of flooding a glistening sirloin with the sanguine tang of A-1 Sauce, of gumbo. Norm's is where I find true multicultural consciousness—blacks, Latinos, Asians, whites; Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus; teens, toddlers, coffin-dodgers, the middle-aged—all squirming in itchy plastic tables while scarfing down cheap grub. Norm's is where my family goes after a funeral, after morning Mass, for Christmas, New Year's or a birthday. Norm's is where my father, a proud citizen for almost 20 years, always asks my mother—whom he disrespects at all other times—"Honey, what do I order all the time?" Where he continues to mispronounce what he's ordered without deviation for 30 years—"One T-bone esteak y eggs." Norm's is where I first discovered a commie fag rag called OC Weekly, where I ate after staying out past midnight for the first time, where—for the only time in my life—I asked a total stranger for her number (she said no). Norm's is comforting, loving and nostalgic. And their mineral-packed liver and onions is delish. Located on every third corner of the Free World; www.normsrestaurants.com.
2. While other restaurants feature more choices, it's strictly robust sandwiches and the finest date shakes this side of Indio at the Crystal Cove Shake Shack. And heaven knows visiting the tiny business nowadays requires a day trip thanks to the ever-increasing PCH traffic that's transforming our once-docile southern coast into a permanent SigAlert. Still, there is no better metaphor for the America of Orange County than the Shake Shack. Gaze westward while slurping down those intense date shakes, now in their sixth decade, and you're privy to the majestic Pacific and the sagebrush-bearded cliffs below. Glance toward the east, across PCH, however, and shudder at the synthetic Newport Coast development that rose a few years back, a project indistinguishable from 75 percent of the county with one major exception—this development eradicated some of the most beautiful hills God ever formed to make way for . . . Starbucks?! 7408 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-9666.
3. Whenever a food critic compiles a "Best Of" list for county restaurants, Anaheim's La Palma Chicken Pie Shop invariably cracks the Top 10, and with good reasons. Take your pick—the eponymous meal? Flaky, gravy-drenched golden heaven, heavy with mashed potatoes and moist chicken chunks, baked in foil bowls. The milieu? Geezer-dominated clientele, Googie-dream architectural design. The staff? Latinos in the kitchen, white women wiping down tables and fielding calls up front. This is the Orange County that once was and will disappear once owner Otto Hasselbarth decides to call it a life. Please don't. 928 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 533-2021.
4. Plum's Café is the county's premier place to enjoy the timber-soaked flavors of the Pacific Northwest. It's also what independent dining should be about: a spare design, gallery-deserving artwork, plus owner/chef Kim Jorgenson's ever-evolving experiments. We like the apple-infused pancakes, salmon platters redolent of the Chinook, and the marionberry cheesecake that forever elevates marionberry to our favorite obscure fruit—barobo, take a hike! 369 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-7586; www.plumscafe.com.
5. I defy anyone to find a finer summer Friday night than the kind you get at Angelo's: a burger-fries-and-Coke combo for six bucks, a girl/boy by your side, nameless kids chucking pickles at one another, buxom waitresses skating without pause, and the half-Latino, half-white crowd communally willing another Vlad Guerrero horsehide bomb into the television sky. 511 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 533-1401.
6. Hush is an architectural beaut, with a hilltop view of the Pacific and a main dining hall that recalls the great steak houses of yore. But power couples and gourmands return for the bold eats, American standards such as roasted chicken and pork chops paired with obsidian rice grains or multifruit sauces turned into creations homey, epicurean and filling. The prices might delay next month's electricity bill, but the tastes will make the darkness worth it. 858 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-3616; www.hushrestaurant.com.
#7 Dad's Donut Shop & Bakery
(Photo by Amy Thelig) 7. Dad's Donut Shop & Bakery might not have invented the Balboa Bar—that honor goes to Sugar 'n Spice just two doors down Marine Avenue on lovely Balboa Island—but the art of welding multicolored sugary shards to a vanilla-ice-cream slab with boiling chocolate syrup reaches artisan levels at Dad's, as the Vietnamese family that now owns the place freezes their Balboa Bars so your mini-Picasso doesn't instantly melt. Dad's ham-and-cheese croissant is nummy as well. 318 Marine Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 673-8686.
8. You'd figure Burrell's Bar-B-Que—once in the heart of Santa Ana's ghetto, now part of its ever-expanding barrio—would've followed the county's African-American exodus to points Riverside long ago. But Fred Burrell smokes on in his beloved shack, his North Carolina-style 'cue still sublime, the pulled-pork sandwich as bracing with vinegar as what they slow roast in Raleigh. Lunch at the picnic-table seating out back is our communal Fourth of July party. 305 N. Hesperian, Santa Ana, (714) 547-7441.
9. The perfect Orange County fancy dinner is at Savoury's: in a historic building (Laguna Beach's La Casa del Camino Hotel) near the sea, with an award-winning chef (Brad Toles led Team California to four gold medals in the 2002 International Culinary Olympics) concocting platters deliciously jumbled in their California spin. Crab cakes with wasabi? Hai! 1287 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-9716; www.savourys.com.
10. Ten years after debuting in a dilapidated Costa Mesa factory, five years after opening a second location in downtown Santa Ana, the Gypsy Den remains blue-state Orange County's salon, where nose-pierced babes woo scruffy-bearded grad students with promises of Foucault and vegetarian chili. Though lunch and dinner skew toward hippy healthy, owners Catherine Graziano and Joe Ongie always include wet veggies in their lengthy wraps and non-refried black beans in their gabacho Mexican breakfasts. Their carrot cake is the creamiest in town. 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 549-7012; 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 835-8840; www.gypsyden.com.
11. In a county dotted with Philly cheesesteak houses, John's Philly Grille is our 1980—the year the Phillies won their only World Series. Sports paraphernalia hang from the walls, the amount of big-screen TVs reward workers with tans, and the cheesesteaks are bigger than Mike Schmidt's bat: juicy beef shavings, perfectly grilled peppers, a sturdy Italian loaf and sprays of Cheez Whiz gluing the disparate parts with its sharp, sticky power. 1784 S. Euclid Ave., Anaheim, (714) 491-2733; 20379 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 969-8755; and 16061 Goldenwest St., Huntington Beach, (714) 841-1513.
12. In my trips over the years to Chris & Pitts, I've seen customers sporting pajamas, muumuus and oxygen tanks sitting in corny Naugahyde booths, awaiting platters of inexpensive steak and ribs drowned in a spicy-for-whitey sauce. It's been like this for decades, and the only update of the menu in the past 10 years or so came last year, when it added broasted chicken. This is the modern world. 601 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 635-2601; 15975 Harbor Blvd., Fountain Valley, (714) 775-7311.
13. Last year, the Nation's Restaurant News enshrined Mr. Stox into its Fine Dining Hall of Fame. But the venerable spot—one of the county's first serious haute cuisine emporiums—is so much more than scintillating steaks; poached salmon; and a duck sauced with a sweet, luring glaze. Where else can you spend a couple of hundred for Mom's birthday dinner and get a complimentary photo? Awww . . . 1105 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 634-2994; www.mrstox.com.
14. Hot dog eating the way God wants it at Pacific Coast Hot Dogs—outside a colorful building, washed down with frothy fruit shakes, decorated only with the essential condiments. The chilidog's piquant flavor provokes memories of a summer's worth of love, heat, fireworks and heartache. And the namesake special features as many apparent conflicts as an episode of The O.C.: cumin-driven chili fights with bitter mustard and zingy onions for domain over your palate. 3438 E. Chapman Ave., Orange (714) 744-1415; 300 Pacific Coast Hwy. Ste. 106-A, Huntington Beach, (714) 969-8799.
15. The décor at Grandma's Chicken House is 1950s drive-through—high-backed black booths, domino-checkered floor and a Plexiglas chicken that towers over Lincoln Avenue. The menu is pure heartland—broasted chicken pressure-cooked to a gnarled, greasy apogee, the hen buttery but peppery (girthy potatoes broasted in the batter). The prices are wonderfully low. And the owners are Filipinos. How much more America do you want? 6072 Lincoln Ave., Cypress, (714) 527-3162.
16. Rack of lamb is as ubiquitous to fancy American bistros as falafels are to Middle Eastern bazaars, but the Sundried Tomato Café prepares a version fit for hoity-toity cavemen—meaty bones doused with a tart cranberry sauce, the lamb cooked to pink perfection. Great, zesty namesake cream soup as well. 361 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach; (949) 494-3312; 31781 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 661-1167; www.sundriedtomatocafe.com.
17. Orange County had a pitiful pizza tradition until the arrival of A Slice of New York Pizza. Whatever you might want on your pie—zesty pesto, searing buffalo wings, pineapple, pepperoni—it comes out like they like it in the Bronx—superthin, crunchy, topped with the minimal amount of sauce and served on butcher paper. If you care anything about food, you will visit this cubbyhole. And we love the blown up Topps football card of John Riggins with the New York Jets—supoib! 142 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 493-4430.
18. Descend into a dank strip-mall cellar. Listen to lounge. Flirt with cuties of both sexes and diverse sexual preferences. Sit in real-deal, red Naugahyde booths. Peek at the steak cart. Order one. Knife through transcendent, lightly sauced steer. Flirt again. Knock back a few martinis. Go home with said cutie. And come back to La Cave in a week, ready to do it again. 1695 Irvine Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 646-7944; www.lacaverestaurant.com.
19. After Burrell's and a couple of Santa Ana Mexican taquerías, Ramos House is probably the only restaurant left in Orange County that operates in a living, noisy neighborhood. Its southern-fied breakfasts—fried green tomatoes topped with goat cheese is the most imaginative spin—are a Capistrano Valley institution, the bitter Bloody Marys Orange County's best. But it's the comforting cinnamon beignets that make the long Saturday-morning drive and the one-hour wait all worth it. 31752 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 443-1342.
20. Besides the Nixon Library, the only reason to visit Yorba Linda is The Wild Artichoke. Many dinners have prematurely ended here thanks to patrons filling up on numerous thimbles of the creamily delightful artichoke dip, so go easy. Leave room for chef James D'Aquila's inventive takes on the lowly artichoke such as the Artichoke Napoleon, a puff pastry in which sautéed artichokes assume the luxuriousness of truffles, or a rosemary-scented New York steak, with toasted artichoke leaves sitting sentry. 4973-A Yorba Ranch Rd., Yorba Linda, (714) 777-9646; www.thewildartichoke.com.
21. Chicken Box's broasted-chicken preparation has earned plaudits in publications from Los Angeles(Magazine) to Orange County(Register). So let's celebrate other aspects of this 31-year-old roadside cottage. Boysenberry punch—a supertart, purple elixir mixed nowadays only in one other likely concern, Knott's Berry Farm, and then probably only as a tourist curio. Corn on the cob and frozen watermelon purchased from one of Orange County's last roadside produce stands. Precious ribs. And an entire roost of chicken tchotchkes—I like the statues! 330 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, (562) 691-1701.
22. Hidden in an adobe-style building that may be Central County's prettiest office complex, the Green Parrot Café draws in Santa Ana residents who live north of 17th Street—that would be the gabachos—looking for nearby eats that don't involve refried beans, tortillas or any fluency in Spanish. The lingua franca here is California bistro, which is a fancy way of saying Green Parrot makes its memorable meatloaf with pork, beef and veal. Good meatloaf. 2035 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 550-6040; www.greenparrotcafe.net.
23. Every industrial plaza keeps one—the deli with sandwiches as vile as the tenants (at our old Costa Mesa offices, we called ours the "Smelly Deli"). The healthy exception is Esther's Place, located next to a Huntington Beach post office. Owner Esther Kim slaps together vegetarian sandwiches that aren't Green Party guilt trips—tumbles of raw veggies crammed between two mustard-smeared loaves that are not only good for you, but are also honest-to-goodness good. And Esther wears high heels to work every day—now that's a classy dame! 6789 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 841-4266.
24. Lou's Oak Oven Barbeque is Orange County's original place to knife through Santa Maria-style barbecue, the supremely succulent charcuterie tradition of the central California coast. Whether it's monstrous tri-tips, weighty steaks or divine chickens you're gnawing through, they all retain hints of Lou's red, oak-smoked, rotisserie pedigree. And there's a reason it was once "Lou's Oak Oven Beanery"—their poquito beans side is the ideal hybrid between the pinto bean's gentle bite and the red bean's furtive sweetness. 21501-D Brookhurst St., Huntington Beach, (714) 965-5200; www.lousbbq.com.
25. The restaurant's massive mascot looming over Lincoln Avenue at Original Pancake House—a grinning two-dimensional cook in poofy hat flipping flapjacks—is a city icon as reassuring to Anaheimers as the Big A. And so are the pancakes—wheels of flour soaked with any number of syrups and gobs of butter. Chase them down with coffee. Good morning! 26951 Moulton Pkwy., Aliso Viejo, (949) 643-8591; 1418 E. Lincoln, Anaheim, (714) 535-9815; 18453 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, (714) 693-1390; www.originalpancakehouse.com.
26. The only redeeming feature of Disney's California Resort save for the Tea Cups, the Napa Rose burrows as deep into the recesses of your palate's memory as it does your bank account. They stock some 600 vintages in their wine cellar, many from its namesake region. All dance tremendously with any entrée, but be sure to imbibe multiple vintages with the Seven Sparkling Sins plate, jewels of the deep blue (black caviar and tobiko roe are the most decadent) along with deviled quail eggs. 1600 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 781-3463.
27. It's not just the huge sandwiches—one is rightly dubbed "The Deli," as in all cuts available in the delicatessen—that makes the Shore House Café a favorite sub shop, but rather a melding of meats, spices and dressings working together for the greater good: pastrami joining with turkey unified by ham, and a united front of roast beef and salami. People, if the meat world can do it, why can't we? And why not with a side of curly fries? 520 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 960-8091; 5271 E. Second St., Long Beach, (562) 433-2266; 801 E. Balboa Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 673-7726; 201 Ave. del Mar, San Clemente, (949) 498-3936; 941 Pacific Coast Hwy., Seal Beach, (562) 430-0116.
28. Good job, Costa Mesans: when Vons Supermarket threatened to shutter the Omelette Parlor in late 2003, y'all rallied to save this blue-collar haven (you should've done the same for Kona Lanes, though). Now the rest of us can continue to scratch our bellies in bewildered satisfaction after eating one of the Omelette Parlor's fabulously stuffed omelets named after some long-dead Costa Mesa City Council member—give me the one with cucumbers. 179 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-0740.
29. Thirty variations on the Buffalo wing at Wingnuts! Most of them viciously hot! Some of them strangely sweet! All affordable! And many televisions! 26711 Aliso Creek Rd., Aliso Viejo, (949) 305-7700; 3030 Harbor Blvd., Ste. H-3, Costa Mesa, (714) 434-7700. www.wingnuts.biz.
30. If county invalids knew about the impressive selections at the Hoag Hospital Cafeteria, you'd see ambulances idling on Newport Boulevard ready to unload their hungry wards. While waiting for dialysis, folks can munch on Hoag's intricate grilled sandwiches; along with a dollop of potato salad, it's $3.50. Not the healthiest of deals, but the cafeteria leaves the life-saving to its next-door trauma unit: here, they just want to rehabilitate your taste buds. 1 Hoag Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 645-8600.
31. There are no frills at Frank's Philadelphia when it comes to their Philly cheesesteak: humongous loaf (even the small is ginormous), beef bits chopped into portions so teensy you can absorb them through your fingertips; grilled peppercinnis that remain juicy and fleshy even after meeting cast iron, and the melted mozzarella pours into your innards like milk. 2244 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-8725.
32. Spend 24 hours at the hipster Norm's, Harbor House Café, and observe OC in its proletarian glory: punks returning from a show at Alex's or Que Sera up PCH for an obnoxious pre-breakfast. Beach bums scarfing one of its 31 omelets before an all-night Sunset Beach kegger. Old-timers ordering the same New York steak they've favored for the past half-century. And everyone spreading multiple jellies on their toast. 16341 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-5404.
33. In a region still dotted with the mom-and-pop burger dives of yore, Paul's Place is our Mel's, a mini-chain with locations in Buena Park, Fullerton and Anaheim that don't look a day older than 50. Burgers are charred, massive and come sans condiments, the better for you to squirt to your delight. And in a nod to the changing times, there is also a salsa bar to douse their quite-big, quite-tasty burritos and gyros. 1040 N. Magnolia Ave., Anaheim, (714) 761-4351; 7012 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park, (714) 522-5050; 506 S. Euclid Ave., Fullerton, (714) 870-5995.
34. The flagship eatery of the St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach, Aqua remains thespot for Orange County's nouveau rich with its moneyed atmosphere and fusion-y feasts. But if you're like me, you can only afford to eat the truffle popcorn—and even that does an Enron on our wallets at $12 per batch. 1 Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point, (949) 234-3318.
35. Across the street from Fullerton College, next door to the used-book store where smart Hornets trade in their textbooks, Chicago Harv's is among the few Orange County places that does Chicago dogs befitting the South Side. They ship in turgid Vienna sausages directly from the Windy City, stuff 'em into a poppy-speckled bun next to dill pickle slivers and squirt the mess with stinky-but-super quarts of relish and mustard that'll leave lips a yellow-green color as vibrant as Notre Dame's every-10-years green football uniform. 410 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-0491.
36. The plate lunch is the current rage amongst Southern California's hipsterati—two scoops of white rice, a scoop of mac salad and some ungodly cholesterol bomb. Eat it healthier at Aloha Chicken with its eponymous chicken soy-grilled to a salty climax or not with the loco moco, an ungodly fatty duo of beef patties fused together with cloggy gravy. 10488 Valley View Ave., Buena Park, (714) 826-6672.
37. Two spots for the Filling Station: one bustling locale built from the skeleton of a former gas station on the outskirts of Old Towne Orange, another occupying prime real estate on the city-subsidized ghost town that is downtown Anaheim. Both feature straightforward diner food prettied up—only enough to include fresh ingredients in the burgers, omelets and clove-heavy apple pies. Don't believe the Chowhound.com folks—a good apple pie is a clove-heavy apple pie. 195 W. Center St., Anaheim, (714) 535-2800; 201 N. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 289-9714; www.fillingstationcafe.com.
38. Anita's New Mexico-Style Food, a nondescript Fullerton mock-adobe, is one of the few Southern California restaurants emphasizing true New Mexico dietary traditions: thundering pozole bowls and meticulously stuffed chile rellenos that strike the model balance between earthy cheese and mild spice. You can find those entrées at Mexican restaurants, though, so eat American with the sopapilla: Indian fry bread gussied up with honey, a dry sweetness foreign to your chocolate-spoiled mouth but one fantastic enough to linger there for good. 600 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 525-0977.
39. Both restaurant and market and far from the sea, the Original Fish Co. is where you can chomp through swordfish as a sandwich, on a skewer, as a fillet, mesquite-smoked or combined with a hunk of beef. Its other seafood platters are rightfully popular, but don't forget their accompanying sourdough rolls: slightly bitter, around the size of an enlarged orange and brilliant. 11061 Los Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos, (562) 594-4553; www.originalfishcompany.com.
40. Mustard's is a haunt for all artifacts Chi-Town: yellowed Tribune front-page celebrating da Bears' Super Bowl XX victory; a picture of former mayor/god Richard Daley; and the bold yellow slogan for Vienna Beef, the brand with which Mustard's makes its bulky, peppery Chicago dog, complete with tooth-blackening poppy-seed bun, leprechaun-green relish, gritty celery salt and a giant dill pickle. Great Italian roast beef as well, with as many folds as a Cubs pennant run. 3630 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, (562) 598-1662.
41. Black & Blue is the filet mignon and sirloin special at Stubrik's Steak House: an epic bulk of beef gorged with rank blue cheese, then slathered with a blue cheese/burgundy sauce that could be the bourgie A-1 sauce. If you're a straight beef kinda guy, stick to the porterhouse, 24 ounces of peppercorn-sauce-laden bowel cleaning. 118 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-1290; 28241 Marguerite Pkwy., Mission Viejo, (949) 218-0790; www.stubriks.com.
42. Though other county Philly cheesesteak houses cram bigger subs, Philly's Famous Cheese Steak tops them all in the crucial matter of cheese. It overwhelms your senses like a good cheese should, like the best quesadillas: sharp, comforting, gooey. Despite the dairy onslaught, the beef's savor doesn't wilt, remaining juicy like an elegant shawerma. And Philly's Famous also keeps Tastykake pastries, as much a Brotherly Love institution as the Liberty Bell or choke-prone Eagles playoff runs. 648 E. First St., Tustin, (714) 505-6067.
43. Hotel dining is always precarious, but 6ix Park Grill treats its guests to cuisine that trumps the Hyatt name sponsoring it. Breakfast brings complex frittatas; lunch is all about the finely grilled steaks. But it's only dinner where guests can gnaw on lightly smoked octopus tentacles rubbed with lemon, coupled with a sweet San Luis Obispo wine so rich it relegates chocolate to the blandness of chalk. 17900 Jamboree Rd., Irvine, (949) 225-6666.
44. Really, $16 meatloaf is the most ridiculous purchase you'll make this life cycle . . . unless it's the chunk of breaded gunk over at The Lodge, two slices of caramelized gravy-dappled joy. Owners Tim and Liza Goodell whip up some other wildly overpriced TV trays of Americana as well—three-cheese mac 'n' cheese, burly steaks and straight Scotch—but who said nostalgia was affordable? 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-1700; www.lodge-restaurant.com.
45. If Santa Ana can host restaurant heavyweights like Darya and Ferdussi, then why can't Fashion Island host something as simple as Red Rock Chili? Six kinds of the goop are ladled here, from a White Rock-type gentle with white beans and simmered chicken breast, to the too-sweet Cincinnati-style radiating nutmeg and cinnamon. And although my Mexican lengua finds the habanero chile merely tingly—remember I drink Tapatío regularly—the habanero will tint you permanently red. 401 Newport Center Dr., Ste. A106, Newport Beach, (949) 760-0752; www.redrockchili.com.
46. Had a date at Hans' Homemade Ice Cream last year, and the lady's weapon of seduction was pecan ice cream scooped into a waffle cone. It was just like her: seemingly mundane but surprising, golden brown and one of the sweetest beauties I've ever man-handled. But, alas, this was the only night I tasted of her, and we ended the affair quietly. As for Hans? Has all the variety I need to keep my gustatory libido satisfied. 3640 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (714) 979-8815.
47. Native Foods: vegans, vegans everywhere, and organic hooch to drink. And for carnivores, mock meat the likes of which hadto involve some sort of slaughterhouse. 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 751-2151; www.nativefoods.com.
48. The placement of Taps Fish House & Brewery in Brea's neon-blinding downtown district is a welcome anomaly: a place to chug home-brewed ales, lagers and other pints, all within the confines of a warehouse-looking building. Not a boozer myself, but take it from my cousins, who every Friday night hoist a pint to the newest bird and bite down on a po'boy engorged with Taps' snappy andouille. 101 E. Imperial Hwy., Brea, (714) 257-0101; www.tapsbrea.com.
49. We prefer Memphis' original SoBeCa shack but profess a soft spot for its second location inside Santa Ana's historic Santora building, even if 90 percent of the city's residents—that would be the Mexicans—never visit. Regardless, both locations impress with Southern standards: catfish fillets pounded into a crispy sheet; a hearty jambalaya that doesn't scrimp on the pork; crackling, bittersweet hush puppies; and a clientele that's as warm, buttery and inviting as their cornbread. 2920 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-7685; 201 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 564-1064; www.memphiscafe.com.
50. There's a mini-Galapagos of seafood platters at 230 Forest Avenue, all California-ized with clashing, clairvoyant sauces—dig the hazelnut-seeded halibut sprinkled with a meaty papaya relish that imparts its mother fruit's pleasing sear at the moment the halibut's light essence melts into your brain. 230 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-2545.
51. Champs is stuck in the 1980s: faded pictures of Los Angeles Rams fans hang inside and hot dogs bear the names of Dodgers icon Fernando Valenzuela and members of the Showtime Lakers. Its snappy Chicago dogs, however, are timeless—slightly crispy Vienna beef sausage, speckled poppy-seed bun and relish so bright it makes you blink. 12161 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach, (562) 596-2555.
52. Pittsburgh Broasted Chicken is just what the name says, plus a cute bird mascot armed with a baseball bat. They pressure-cook the gals with the same relentless intensity the Steelers defense applies on third-and-15, producing plump meat inside a fine knobby skin. 3671 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, (562) 594-0140.
53. Take a hint from the name: Vine is about matching vintages with the glimmering California cuisine of chef Justin Monson, platters such as smoked-tomato soup, seasonal basil-spiked pumpkin raviolis and sea scallops worthy of a chapter in Island of the Blue Dolphins. Only caveat: Vine, true to California-cuisine pedigree, changes its menu according to the seasons. So that sumptuous pumpkin ravioli you slowly chewed on throughout fall? Gone until next Halloween. 211 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 361-2079; www.vinesanclemente.com.
54. Sonic Drive-In is a grand place to drive to, ring the buzzer, and feast on the same crispy onion rings and uranium-thick shakes your Mom and Dad did on their first necking night. Not named after the Sega Genesis character, contrary to Internet myth. 1632 N. Lemon St., Anaheim, (714) 992-4500.
55. From the basketball-crazy, NASCAR-loving, Jesse Helms-worshiping land of North Carolina comes the first outpost of another Southern chain, Kill Devil's, where it's all about the slaw-topped barbecue-pork sandwich that brings in Cack-a-lacks (what native North Carolinians call themselves) from across the state. Chase that with some authentic frozen custard, let the Skynyrd deafen your ears and try to dodge the flying waddles of tobacco around you. 23842 El Toro Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 462-0690; www.killdevilsfrozencustard.com.
56. It's officially one of the county's three Pakistani eateries, but the Great Zucchini also preps industrial-park deli standards such as sandwiches, breakfast burritos and bagels. Nevertheless, there is no dish more American in Southern California than the bun kebab combo—a mayo-and-onion-laced burger with a ground-beef patty studded with pomegranate seeds, lentils, cloves and H-bomb-hot jalapeño shavings; fries served with chutney; and a creamy Pakistani cola. It's the melting pot gone car-hop. 765 St. College Blvd., Ste. B, Fullerton, (714) 879-8522.
57. Knowlwood is a chain, yes, but OC-born and -bred. Get the exquisite bacon cheeseburger with grilled onions, a hunka-hunka burning meat with smoky slices of swine and a three-napkin minimum. 5665 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 779-2501; 150 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 879-7552; 14952 Sand Canyon Ave., Irvine, (949) 857-8927; 28061 Greenfield Dr., Laguna Niguel, (949) 831-1593; www.knowlwoodrestaurants.com.
58. South County's own opulent luxury chain, Opah is where you find high-class margaritas and farm-grown flesh of land and sea sluiced, slathered, marinated and God knows what else with various fruit compotes and sauces. Our choice: smoked applejack brandy barbecue ribs with papaya glaze. 26851 Aliso Creek Rd., Aliso Viejo, (949) 360-8822; 13122 Jamboree Rd., Irvine, (714) 508-8055; 22332 El Paseo, Rancho Santa Margarita, (949) 766-9988; www.opahrestaurant.com.
59. Waffles with the circumference of chessboards, topped with coconut, rife with pecans or drowned in maple syrup—fine and all. But have you ever chomped on the burger at California Waffle Bar and Family Diner? The certified-Angus-patty burger? The burger with a crescent of avocado, sinewy red onions and just-perfect mild salsa? You haven't? You just like the waffles here? Good for you—but eat the burger some day. 105 S. Ola Vista, San Clemente, (949) 498-9050.
#60 The stunning plum in
the Montage's pie
(Photo by Amy Thelig)
60. If coastal gourmands aren't flocking to Aqua, then they're calling in reservations for Studio, the stunning plum in the Montage Resort's pie. Seafood is gospel at Studio, but I once reveled in a salad with a red-pepper vinaigrette that satiated the gourmand and the Mexican in me in a way that hasn't happened since. 30801 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-6420.
61. Eddie's Galley is one of those precious Balboa Peninsula institutions—since 1957!—that remains open despite the consistent encroachment of the Balboa Island folks. Californian cuisine unsullied by attempts at fusion—this California is about omelets gorged with whatever tickles your tongue, hamburgers and hot dogs, all doused with filling chili. 829 Harbor Island Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 673-4110.
62. When Yellow Basket opened in the 1950s, Santa Ana was overwhelmingly white; nowadays, it's the most-Latino big city in los Estados Unidos. But the burger dive continues flipping its specialty by remaining fluent in the language of hamburger, with 18 dialects—cute junior hamburger for the kiddies, surprisingly lip-smacking garden burger for the vegetarian cop-outs and a colossal triple cheeseburger (yo quiero unPepto-Bismol shake, por favor). 2860 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 545-8219; www.yellowbasket.com.
#63 Rembrandt's beautiful cuisine 63. Rembrandt's Beautiful Cuisine is the kind of place where the most adventurous offering is a mozzarella-baked chicken Monterrey, stubbornly retro in its attempt to be undistinguished. Rembrandt's Beautiful Cuisine is the closest we have to such old-fashioned steakhouses as Brown Derby and Velvet Turtle, a Fleming's for the older-than-80 set. Steaks are as straightforward as the whiskey they pour out like rain. 909 E. Yorba Linda Ave., Placentia, (714) 528-6222; www.rembrandtsrestaurant.com.
64. With La Habra's Gordo Mellony's exiled to the meat grinder of history, it's now up to Mega Burgers in Dana Point to construct the county's largest mass of patties and buns: the mega-mega burger, more midget cow than meal. Said to equal the bulk of eight burgers and sliced like a dessert pie, forking through this will make you more burger than man. 34122 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 488-0849.
65. "Creative American Cuisine" is how Sage bills itself, and no disagreement from us there. Consider the grilled pork tenderloin, a hock of pig lacquered up with brandy sauce, buttressed by sweet-and-sour cabbage that's how all sauerkraut should be, and joined with a pair of parmesan-laced potato cakes. Sage also boils a most exquisite tortilla soup. 2531 Eastbluff Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 718-9650; 7862 E. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 715-7243.
66. So many outstanding fusion sandwiches at Pangea—from grilled cheese triangles to more audacious fare such as a deceptively spicy Malaysian-curry chicken-breast sub sweetened with delightful slices of red and white grapes. We know one prominent Santa Ana activist usually gathers with her cohorts at Pangea, where they knife through beautifully grilled meatloaf while plotting new ways to burrow further into mega-developer-and-Pangea-landlord Mike Harrah's beard. 211 W. Second St., Santa Ana, (714) 834-0688; www.pangea-cafe.com.
67. If the Lazy Dog Cafe ditched the annoying dog theme—especially all the beagles; save for Snoopy, beagles are ugly, dour mutts—they would be left with an excellent Westminster diner far from the madding Little Saigon crowds. New American takes: pot roasts sautéed with iron-drenched spinach, chicken wings marinated in jerk seasonings, and a peppercorn-burnished burger so intriguing and bib-worthy you'll marvel that this restaurant was founded by the original owners of Mimi's. 16310 Beach Blvd., Westminster, (714) 500-1140; www.thelazydogcafe.com.
68. The most fabulous luxury about Svelte isn't its gaudy interior, liver-eradicating booze or beautiful people, but rather the burger "de luxe," a marbled mass of Kobe beef topped with caramelized onions, the onions imparting its bitter sugars to a patty that took years of pampering cows with sake massages, not to mention millions, to create. 440 Heliotrope, Corona del Mar, (949) 723-9685; www.svelte.cc.
69. PoFolks is a rustically eccentric restaurant—tin and wooden agricultural-company signs on the walls, a working train that chugs the perimeter—specializing in Norms-style home cooking with a Southern bent, the type of joint where fried chicken livers with red beans and rice is a daily special and peach cobbler isn't some ironic/iconic treat but what's for dessert. Make sure to put honey on the hearty hush puppies, though, and not Cajun sauce lest the linebacker-sized waitresses laugh at you. 7701 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 521-8955.
70. Loved more for its Googie-gone-Mary Poppins design than its greasy-spoon grub, Seal Beach's Parasol is in constant danger of meeting the toothy end of a bulldozer. Do the owners a favor and stage a sit-in for breakfast, lunch and dinner—food is good, but wacky restaurants like the Parasol are going the way of Kona Lanes. 12241 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach, (562) 598-3311.
71. Blintzes, matzo balls, knishes, kugel—not a Krusty the Klown standup routine but the sellers at Katella Deli, one of Orange County's few full-service Jewish delis. All pass a bubeleh's muster—the matzo-ball soup will keep you warm all winter; it's all about the egginess—but goyim can also feast on the mayo-tinted mini-tower Katella calls a Reuben. 4470 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, (562) 594-8611.
72. Just down the street from the faux-downtown Birch Street Promenade, Brea's Best Burgers employs Thousand Island dressing with a studied judiciousness rarely seen in burger stands: enough for the pink-orange pseudo-sauce to act as an apt foil for the nicely charred patty and toasted sesame bun but not enough to overwhelm it into a pungent morass. 707 S. First St., Brea, (714) 990-2615.
73. Not since Boogie Nights has a wiener garnered so much deserved buzz as the yearlong love-in for those steamed at Jerry's Wood-Fired Hot Dogs. Owner and Cleveland native Jerry O'Connell comes from the land where sausage-making is gospel, and his dogs show it: all-beef franks bursting from taut casings; X-rated kielbasas with a vicious, Warsaw Pact bite; and a Jalapeño Hot Link that is proudly inauthentic, but nobody gives a damn as his whining-hole is deep-throating the eight inches. 2276 E. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 245-0200; www.jerrysdogs.com.
74. Beachfire is what a neighborhood restaurant should be—a mini-gallery featuring hometown artists (appreciate the colorful boats of Chico Dias), goofy theme nights from Monday Night Football to Palate and Palette Thursdays, live bands, kid's specials and booze. Lots of booze. But it's the seafood that ultimately impresses the most—the macadamia-nut-crusted mahi, particularly. 204 Ave. del Mar, Ste D, San Celmente, 949-366-3232; www.beachfire.com
75. SpongeBob Squarepants creator Stephen Hillenberg was raised in this county, so we'll wager clams to fins that he must've eaten at Charlie's Chili at least once, a madcap diner complete with various nautical gewgaws. What else but its eons-renowned chili—thick and sumptuous, smeared on platters from cheesy omelets to cranium-sized burgers or alone in a bowl—and the constant guessing as to its secret creation process could inspire the Krusty Krab and its arch-nemesis, Plankton? 102 McFadden Place, Newport Beach, (949) 675-7991.
76. It's hard to ignore a joint that boasts WORLD FAMOUS PASTRAMI in big block lettering on the sign out front. It's harder to dispute The Hat's boast, though, when chomping through folds of the red-and-brown meat, each layer saltier than the last, with a cup of juices for luscious dunking. 1210 E. Imperial Hwy., Brea, (714) 257-9500; 23641 Rockfield Blvd., Lake Forest, (949) 586-9200; www.thehat.com.
77. Proof that San Diego knows more than just overachieving Chargers teams and Mexican-bashing, Karl Strauss' Costa Mesa outlet is where the South Coast set goes to slum it with bros—after all, class differences dissipate with the promise of multiple lagers, sports on the big screen, magnificent hoagies, and comely lasses delivering said magnificent hoagies and booze. 901-A South Coast Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 546-BREW; www.karlstraus.com.
78. Papa's Western BBQ smokes its meat Santa Maria-style—tri-tip served lean with a marinade dipping sauce that's salty yet delicious, meat soaking up the redwood smoke of its heated chips, and a wall of country-and-western stars so old it still hadn't met a dead Hank Williams Sr. in the back of a Cadillac. Baby-back ribs split apart like Legos are served sauceless save for that marinade. Chicken, steaks, pork loin: anything bathed in that dark, dense marinade transforms into the Divine. 10900 Los Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos, (562) 594-9251; www.papaswesternbbq.com.
79. I doubt many county residents have visited Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant, probably because the tourist hordes line up for hours here as part of their Knott's Berry Farm day trip. And it's a shame, since the cooking scions of Cordelia Knott still fry a damn yummy bird that crackles into sweet-batter bliss if you so much as eyeball it. 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 220-5080.
80. The Mini-Gourmet is a Placentia strip-mall diner where adults wear T-shirts proclaiming allegiance for the football squad at nearby El Dorado High while sipping coffee alongside no-frill omelets. The Ortega omelet is all about the mild chili, ripe tomatoes and liquefied cheese awaiting its scraping up with toast. 1210 E. Yorba Linda Blvd., Placentia, (714) 524-1611.
81. The nacho cheesesteak—a U-boat of a sub, parts Philadelphia and East Los Angeles—is the Liberty Hall of Toober's Chips, Dips, and Cheese Steak, a clean-kept Huntington Beach hoagie haven that, in a moral world, would exist on the beachfront rather than the asphalt river that is central Beach Boulevard. Make sure to get an order of chips: shaved on the premises from massive potatoes, lightly fried so the skin is crisp while the chip's thin-as-tissue body is nearly translucent and salted just enough to accentuate the tuber's earthy charm. 19092 Beach Blvd., Ste. T, Huntington Beach, (714) 968-2299.
82. Funniest indicator of the disparity between the UC and Cal State systems: while Cal State Fullerton students slosh up at the Off Campus Pub, UC Irvine's brainiacs drink in besotted bliss at the Anthill Pub, where a request for Coors earns haughty laughter and the draft, pilsner and lager selections are almost as large as the room's median IQ. Good Philly cheesesteaks, too. 4200 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 824-3050.
83. Ruth's Place would rank higher if not for its irregular hours. But when namesake Ruth Davenport fires up her powerful 'cue, she produces fried catfish with a crunch-factor that requires earplugs. And then there are the sweetest sweet potatoes this side of a Peruvian ceviche. 1236 Civic Center Dr. W., Santa Ana, (714) 953-9454.
84. Walt's Wharf is a Seal Beach institution, even if the lines are ridiculously long and stocked with slack-jawed Nebraskans fresh from a day of seeing the Pacific for the first time. Take a break from the seafood, as good as it may be, and dip into the oak-grilled artichokes. 201 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 598-4433.
85. It's difficult to determine what causes the chaps here to salivate more: the billowy buns supporting TK's renowned hamburgers or the barely legal female employees playing with their meat and squirting TK's acrid secret sauce. 110 Pacific Coast Hwy., Ste. 10, Huntington Beach, (714) 960-3238; 2119 W. Balboa Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 673-3438.
86. "Open 25 hours," as its motto boasts, Earl's Homecooking is a non-manufactured simulacrum of the '50s and '60s, back when cigarettes were aperitifs, steaks were burned and then drowned in A-1 Sauce, and grease was a welcome ingredient, whether on salads, cheesecake or even water. Feel free to light up—Earl's circumvents California anti-smoking laws in its backroom by keeping its windows open. 807 N. Tustin Ave., Orange, (714) 639-8590.
87. Forget the novelty of getting your tie snipped off here, a shtick stolen from the dearly departed Pinnacle Peak—Trabuco Oaks Steak House hearkens to a time when South County was Irvine- and O'Neill-owned ranches. Portions here are suitable for veterans of cattle trails—mesquite-grilled chickens, lambs, pork; pick the livestock, they have it. But meditate instead on the steaks, including the eight-ounce Lil' Wrangler and the two-pound Cowboy. 20782 Trabuco Oaks Dr., Trabuco Canyon, (949) 586-0722; www.trabucooaksteakhouse.com.
88. The filet mignon at Bungalow is as round as a Newport Beach socialite's new décolletage. Its pleasing cut, deep aroma and tender texture make it possible to eat the entire thing without encountering a morsel of fat or gristle. 2441 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 673-6585.
89. So Crescent City is part of a national chain—big bloody deal. This ain't no Disneyfication of the Big Easy. The shrimp po'boys are just the way they oughta be: a flaky French-bread roll bloated with lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, spicy mayo and fried, bite-size prawns—messier than a dip in the Mississippi. 2933 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 453-3555; www.crescentcitybeignets.com.
90. While most of the county may chug, we leave the brewing to masters. Not so at Brewbakers. Part fraternity, part bakery, part miniature brewery, Brewbakers is as much a bonding class as an eating establishment, a gustatory amusement park in the midst of chain-packed Huntington Beach. While the personal beer-making process is the main attraction, owner Dennis Midden maintains baking is his first love, and a chomp through his pretzels—chewy loops with an optimal crustiness and enough salt to enhance the taste but not cover it—confirms it. 7242 Heil Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 596-5506; www.brewbakers1.com.
91. Eating at Lucille's Smokehouse BBQ reminds me of the classic Simpsons episode in which Homer visits the Slaughterhouse, a beef barn that sells 16 pounds of what a waiter describes as "indomitable tenderloin." Homer tries but fails to finish the Sir Loins-a-Lot, and most of Lucille's customers likewise walk away defeated with bulky, suitcase-deep takeout cartons spilling over with ferociously smoked tri-tips, ribs and hot links the size of Nerf torpedoes. 1639 E. Imperial Hwy., Brea, (714) 990-4944; www.lucillesbbq.com.
92. The Ritz: where suited lawyers and PR flaks take their dates to spend the equivalent of a Toyota Corolla on dinner. Exquisite cuisine: if there's a place claiming to better pair filet mignon and lobster tail, both proud avatars of their race, they're lying. 880 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 720-1800; www.ritzrestaurant.com.
93. The original Gypsy Den is Rutabegorz—started back in the 1970s by true hippies who lamented the lack of healthy munchies in a county that was still all steak and potatoes and crew cuts. Little has changed over the years, except the opening of new branches in Tustin and Orange: same holistic wraps, same Lonely Planet-inspired salads, same granola crowd. 154 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 574-8862; 264 N. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 633-3260; 158 W. Main St., Tustin, (714) 731-9807; www.rutabegorz.com.
94. A tour of barbecue traditions within the confines of a gleaming Surf City development, Smokin' Mo's redeems the red states from which it pulls its stuff. Tennessee shines with vinegary, massive, great pork ribs, Louisiana appears with hot links that please like a boat ride through the bayou. Better than that, we love its pig mascot—wide-eyed, holding a massive wooden spoon, grinning at the thought of eating its brethren, the happiest cannibal since that weird gay German guy. 301 Main St., Ste. 107, Huntington Beach, (714) 374-3033; www.mosbbq.com.
95. The two San Clemente Schleppy's are prototypical beach shacks: tiled roof caked with bird crap, a side business in such curios as seahorse wind chimes, host to seagulls and pigeons who warily eye patrons for the first signs of a tumbling scrap. Order Schleppy's burger combo: a small drink that qualifies as a medium nearly anywhere else, snappy fries bursting with earthy potato pride and a flavorful hamburger featuring some of the greatest beef patties grilled since the last Labor Day. 250 Ave. Calafia, San Clemente; 615 Ave. Victoria, San Clemente, (949) 492-8335.
96. Daily Grill is where you can learn to love the Cobb salad, an orchestrated event of chicken, tomatoes, avocado, bacon, blue cheese, scallions, egg, and romaine and iceberg lettuces mixed with a creamy Italian dressing. Also, American comfort food—don't miss the meatloaf—prepared at its highest level. 2636 Dupont Dr., Irvine, (949) 474-2223; 957 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 644-2223; www.dailygrill.com.
97. Watson Drugs and Soda Fountain (featured in the 1996 Tom Hanks clunker That Thing You Do!) is the place to eat so-so omelets, burgers and authentic soda pop the way your grandparents did: in expansive checkered-clothed booths in a building more than a century old—with regulars nearly as ancient. 116 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 633-1050.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.